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Thallium is a heavy metal with toxic effects so significant, it was banned for use in American consumer products in 1972, more than two decades before lead was prohibited in gasoline. The toxicity of thallium rivals that of mercury and lead, and the three metals appear consecutively on the periodic table: mercury, atomic number 80; thallium, 81; and lead, 82. Thallium is absorbed readily in all tissues of the body. It can be inhaled, it is absorbed directly through the skin on contact, and it can be consumed in food or liquids. Once thallium is absorbed, it dissolves quickly in liquids and disperses readily into every cell in the body, one of the reasons it is so exceptionally toxic.1
Our work in two pilot studies identified the presence of elevated levels of thallium in patient populations, which led to a third pilot project, documenting thallium in the present-day food chain, in cruciferous vegetables such as kale.
Pilot Study 1
EH: The inception of this story dates back to the year 2010. At the Preventative Medical Center of Marin (PMC), we had been asked to test an oral chelation product, a naturally derived detoxification compound made from zeolite by a company out of Cleveland, Life Health Science. They contacted Elson Haas, MD, the Medical Director of PMC, and in a series of conversations asked if he would conduct an independent study of this compound as it related to the removal of toxic heavy metals. My subsequent role involved experimental design, recruitment and coordination of study participants, management and execution of testing and protocols, analysis of lab reports, and reporting of findings. We designed an experiment that was immediately admitted as a pilot study involving 40 people, and the company paid us to perform the research. They provided the chelating agent, and we began submitting lab samples to Doctor’s Data, a medical laboratory that Elson had utilized for more than two decades for this type of testing. We found that there was an efficacious response in terms of the removal of certain heavy metals; most notably mercury and lead.
Pilot Study 2
EH: At that time, the company was further refining the chelating product. As the project proceeded they offered us the newer version of the product and asked if we would like to continue with a second phase of the study. Dr. Haas was busy, so Dr. Michael Rosenbaum served as principle investigator on the next phase of the project, which involved setting up another pilot study to test whether or not we found duplication of results, and whether the newer compound was more efficacious. Consequently, we enrolled 10 people from the initial study to provide comparative data and 10 new participants. The data from the two studies provided us a total sample size of 50, which is large enough to be analyzed for statistical significance.
During the second phase of that work I noticed high levels of thallium in a number of the lab reports, and Michael Rosenbaum and I began tracking the thallium levels. We noticed that people who were exhibiting high thallium had high thallium in their second lab reports as well. We also noticed that patients with high thallium on the lab results had thallium-related symptoms. One patient, for example, had severe arrhythmia (which later subsided when she stopped eating kale). This raised the question of whether the new, improved version of the chelating product, ORËÁ, is more effectively chelating out thallium, elevating the levels of thallium detected in patients’ urine samples. The new product is more highly purified, and has been verified in third-party evaluations in terms of molecular weight, charge profile, and molecular size and is said to be capable of traversing the blood brain barrier.
In retrospect, when I went back and reviewed the results of the first study, there were fairly high thallium levels in that initial study, but compared with the mercury and lead, they did not capture my attention. When I saw thallium emerging as a relatively high toxic metal, reported with frequency in the second study, I started wondering what other issues were involved. Michael and I talked about this a great deal.
Chronic Thallium Exposure
Note: Signs and symptoms of toxicity due to chronic exposure to thallium include fatigue, headaches, depression, hallucinations, psychosis, dementia, poor appetite, leg pain, hair loss, and/or disturbances of vision. Chronic thallium poisoning can occur over a period of months or years, due to absorption through the skin, respiratory tract, or gastrointestinal tract, accumulating to toxic levels. The presentation of chronic thallium toxicity is similar to that of numerous other diseases; consequently, many cases of industrial, environmental, and domestic thallium exposure probably go undetected.2
Symptoms of Acute Exposure
MR: We know something about acute exposure because Saddam Hussein put thallium in bread and in birthday cakes and fed it to large numbers of people. They all experienced clinically similar outcomes.3 The first day involves primarily gastro-intestinal symptoms: nausea, vomiting, and severe abdominal pain. From about day 2 to day 5, thallium primarily affects the nervous system. That begins with ascending neuropathy, starting in the feet and moving up the legs and the thighs. People can experience numbness, tingling, shooting pains, and/or burning sensations in the skin, which can traverse all the way up the body. If the symptoms progress and become more serious, there is a lack of coordination, and ataxia is very common. Of all the heavy metals, thallium is the one that produces ataxia more frequently than any other. People can also develop tremors and seizures, so these are definitely aspects of the clinical picture.4
EH: Arrhythmias may be detected even in the absence of physical tremors.
MR: In addition to effects on the brain, and nervous system, thallium is known to have significant effects on the liver, kidneys, and heart. Approximately 50% of the thallium that goes to the kidney is reabsorbed right back into the kidney rather than being discharged in the urine. That is one of the reasons it takes so long for the body to get rid of this toxin. One of the organs that is most affected by thallium is, therefore, the kidney because the concentration of thallium in the kidney is very high, perhaps five times higher than it is in most other organs.
EH: There is a reverse feedback loop here: the more thallium the body accumulates, the less able it is to rid itself of thallium. So the kidney begins to malfunction, the glutathione detoxification system stops working. The tendency for thallium to stack up in the body increases with every day that goes by, if the source of the exposure is not terminated.
MR: A journal article published in Europe in 2009 reports that thallium bio-accumulates in the body.5 Thallium binds so tenaciously to sulfur that it persists in hair and in tissue in the body that contains sulfur, released into the body very gradually. In the process of detoxification, toxins are sent to the liver, on to the gall bladder, and on to the small intestine, but 50% of the thallium is reabsorbed right back into the body through the process of enterohepatic recirculation.
Mechanisms of Action
Adverse Effects on Myelin
MR: Thallium is highly toxic to the entire nervous system and more so to that system than perhaps any other system in the body. It upsets the production of myelin, which is responsible for the speed with which nerve impulses are conducted. When myelin is destroyed, that results in lesions that can resemble multiple sclerosis. Thallium de-myelinates nerves and therefore, slows down nerve conduction, in some cases causing symptoms that look like optic nerve neuritis.
EH: From the standpoint of the biochemistry, thallium’s atoms, molecules, and ions function like a Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon. Myelin contains both cysteine and methionine, which enable the myelin sheath to retain its structure. It doesn’t take much of a breakdown in the myelin sheath to trigger cross firing. In other systems of the body, 10% loss is less of an impairment. You could lose 10% of a muscle and simply feel fatigued. Even 10% of your hair could fall out, and you might not notice it that day. However, with the nervous system, petit mal, grand mal, arrhythmias, tremors, ataxia, these are symptoms that could be triggered in the early stages of myelin degeneration.
MR: The myelin degeneration is consistent with thallium’s mechanism of action with respect to sulfur and sulfur-containing bonds, and interference with sulfur metabolism.
Compromised Sulfur Metabolism
MR: Many heavy metals bind to sulfur. Mercury binds to sulfur. Thallium binds tenaciously to both disulfide bonds, which are sulfur-sulfur bonds, and to mercaptans, sulfur-hydrogen bonds. Glutathione contains a mercaptan. Thallium interferes with the synthesis and production of glutathione, which is considered the most important antioxidant in the body. When glutathione is reduced, there is less ability to fight infection, and immune response is diminished. Glutathione is the key detoxifier, and among all the antioxidants, it detoxifies heavy metals. Thallium manages to destroy its nemesis, the very substance that could eliminate the thallium.
Clinically, thallium manifests in the body in hair, nails, and skin – keratin: the protein keratin contains mostly disulfide bonds. When thallium binds to these disulfide bonds they begin to unravel, and their ability to bind to each other becomes disrupted.
EH: Thallium compromises the ability to maintain protein structure and function. To the extent that enzyme function is in direct relationship to the integrity of its structure, enzymes cease to function, and structural proteins lose their ability to function correctly.
MR: The conformation of the proteins is changed. People experience thinning hair and hair loss. That may be one of the first things that people notice and indeed, we have found a few patients who had hair loss that directly correlated with their thallium exposure.
Interruption of Potassium Metabolism
MR: Thallium mimics the structure of potassium. When thallium is expelled in coal-ash, for example, and released into the atmosphere, the thallium content converts into various salts, so it no longer exists as pure organic thallium. It exists as thallium oxide, thallium hydroxide, thallium sulphides, or thallium sulphate, in these ionic forms.6 The size of the atom of the ion of thallium almost perfectly simulates the size of the atom in the potassium ion. Consequently the body is completely misled, responding as if the thallium were potassium. Thallium, therefore, has the ability to enter into all the metabolic processes that involve potassium. The major biochemical effect of potassium is that it is pumped inside cells, sequestered inside cells, and it exchanges with sodium in order to produce electrical discharges. That is how nerves function.
NF: What about ATP, also?
MR: In substituting for potassium, thallium interferes with the major enzyme in the human body, sodium potassium – ATPase. Although there are over 600 enzymes in the human body, ATPase is so important that it uses about 25% of the total energy in the body. This is especially true in the systems that have high utilization such as the nervous system. Consequently, interference with that enzyme’s electrical transmissions through nerves has an impact on all the functions that nerves perform – on sensation, on motor ability, movement, coordination, and cognition (both the ability to think and to remember). All of these functions are at risk.
EH: There is an interesting aspect of the physics here. If you take a very heavy atom that has a strong attraction for electrons, for example thallium, and you compare it with potassium, it becomes apparent that potassium is lighter and has far fewer protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Looking at the atomic diameters of those two atoms when they are fully loaded with electrons, they appear to be quite different. The thallium atom has an electron in its outermost shell that is quite some distance relative to potassium. But when you strip that electron away, it’s like taking Pluto out of the solar system. All of a sudden, the size of the remaining ion is so close in diameter to that of potassium, the cell has no way of knowing what it is looking at. It is looking at Dr. Jekyll and doesn’t realize that five times the weight of that potassium atom is about to descend on a molecular process in the form of Mr. Hyde. Imagine Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde driving a Ferrari – that’s the image.
Compromised Protein Production
MR: One other aspect of the clinical story that we have not discussed involves protein. Thallium exists ionically in two forms – thallium +1 and thallium +3. As thallium +1, the thallium ion mimics potassium. Thallium +3 has the ability to bind to the ribosome of the cell where messenger RNA binds amino acids together to create proteins. Thallium +3 interferes with that process directly. Therefore, it sabotages the production of new proteins, which are used for healing, to make antibodies, to create neurotransmitters.
EH: If you think about nausea as one of the early symptoms, and consider the role of digestive enzymes and of the nervous system in good digestion, those two processes alone could explain some of the dramatic effects of thallium. Ribosomes produce digestive enzymes when food is being consumed. If that process is broken down, there is no normal digestion, and there is no normal peristalsis. No wonder people get nauseous. This is one bad atom.
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